Hassan Salame ran a macabre operation until his arrest in 1996. A 26-year-old bomb maker, he was tasked by Hamas to carry out a spate of suicide attacks in Israel as revenge for the assassination of another legendary predecessor Yahya Ayyash with the honorific title of “the engineer”. Salame’s bombs were responsible for killing over 50 innocent civilians before he was incarcerated.
When we picture individuals who strap on explosives, mingle among innocent women and children before blowing their victims into shreds, perhaps the first thought that springs to mind is: “What kind of men would do something like this?” Understandably it is tempting to think of suicide bombers as evilly deranged persons with no emotions or compunctions. Unfortunately, that kind of thinking prevents us from understanding their psyche and countering them.
Suicide attacks—or missions in which the attacker’s death is central to the objective—are nothing new. Such attacks have always formed the toolkit of asymmetric war i.e., where one side is substantially weaker than its opponent. While the Japanese kamikaze pilots and the German Waffen-SS were possibly the more celebrated groups of soldiers who used their body as a bomb, instances of self-sacrifice have been found in virtually every culture, mythology and army. And given that terrorism is essentially an asymmetric war, suicide attacks have been the favoured strategy of almost all terror groups regardless of ideology or cause. And for good reasons.
Take Al Qaeda, for example. The initial core purpose of Al Qaeda was to drive the Russians out of Afghanistan. To achieve this objective, Osama bin Laden had organized his troops into large tribal bands of hundreds of fighters. For some of the larger convoy ambushes, the Mujahidin—as they were known then—collaborated in groups numbering thousands. However, immediately after 9/11 Al Qaeda knew that the US wrath would not be long in coming. And by the time the US war machine carpet-bombed Tora Bora, the headquarters of Al Qaeda, Osama and bulk of his guerillas had slipped into the tribal areas of Pakistan and dispersed into much smaller units. With allied forces in hot pursuit, Osama realized that the new avatar of Al Qaeda and its affiliate movements had to use a franchise model wherein he would provide the ideological and technical support and the local terror groups were free to choose their own targeting strategy and tactics.
Suicide attacks proved to be the equalizer for several reasons. For one, a suicide bomber is the best option in terms of returns on investment. It takes many months and elaborate infrastructure to train conventional terrorists. For instance, the Mumbai attackers had to undergo months of training in weapons, navigation, communication and, of course, seamanship. The 10 attackers were selected from scores of others who had to be put through similar training. A London-style attack, however, just needs a few hours of training in the actual operation of the bomb. In many instances in Gaza and the West Bank, the bombers are instructed literally a few hours before the detonation.
For another, assembling a team of motivated persons, hiding them, infiltrating them under secrecy is more difficult than a revenge-crazed or glory-hunting individual. Nasra Hassan, a Pakistani journalist who specialized in covering suicide bombers, reported that Hamas’ major problem was turning away hordes of young men who clamoured to be accepted for suicide attacks.
Thirdly, they are the poor man’s version of a precision-guided smart bomb. While a random explosion itself causes terror, strategic targeting such as the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi and Benazir Bhutto has game-changing potential. Finally, the concept of suicide as a form of attack has an element of chilling terror to it. Once a few suicide attacks have taken place, there is a sense of dread in the target community and they start viewing every strange face with suspicion, especially since most bombers are literally “boys next door”. The sheer inability of discerning any telltale sign from such “deranged” persons is a frightening thought especially for countries that possess the technical wherewithal to detect the slightest military movement half way across the world.
Unfortunately, these are but a few reasons why suicide attackers will continue to proliferate. Suicide attacks increased from 81 in 2001 to 460 in 2005 and this growth continues unabated. Ironically the iron-hand tactics used during reprisals to suicide attacks propel a fresh crop of volunteers, exacerbating the problem instead of solving it.
Countries are confronted with a paradigm shift in forms of attack that require conceptual rethinking of response. As Jerrold Post, the founder director of the Center for Analysis of Personality and Political Behavior at the Central Intelligence Agency, points out that since terrorism is essentially psychological warfare, countering them with bombs and missiles is not enough. For every terrorist killed, 10 more spring up enthusiastically. The response to psychological warfare is ironically psychological warfare, but as Post points out, terrorist groups leverage sophisticated media and communication strategy, whereas nation-states haven’t even begun to think on those lines.
Raghu Raman is an expert and a commentator on internal security.
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